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US turning away talent needed for innovation: report

US turning away talent needed for innovation: report

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Three-fourths of the patents from the nation's top research universities were filed by immigrants. However, many may not be allowed to work in the United States.

A new study reports that 76% of patents from America’s top 10 patent-generating universities in 2011 had a foreign-born inventor. However, many of the innovators are restricted from staying within the US to build new enterprises.

That's the gist of a new report, “Patent Pending: How Immigrants Are Reinventing The American Economy," issued by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a bipartisan advocacy group,  is intended to highlight the value foreign-born graduates bring to the US economy.

"Foreign-born scholars compose a disproportionate share of the creators and innovators that help America to remain competitive in an increasingly global, knowledge-driven economy," the report states. In addition, 99% of the patents by these foreign-born inventors were in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), an area where the US is projected to face a shortfall of 230,000 qualified advanced-degree workers by 2018, the report states. The following observations are also made:

"Nationally, immigrants currently make up just 16.5% of the US population over age 25, but account for a far greater share of this country’s innovations. Studies have shown that among the American population with advanced degrees, immigrants are three times more likely than native-born to file a patent. Between 1990 and 2000, more than one in four of the Nobel Prize winners based in the United States were immigrants. And in recent years, immigrants have been the innovators behind some of the country’s most forward-looking businesses: From 1995 to 2005, foreign-born entrepreneurs helped found 25% of all new high-tech companies, creating 450,000 jobs."

The report notes that the current US immigration law is stifling this innovation, however. "When many of these student inventors graduate, they are unable to get a visa that would allow them to stay in the US and potentially help create jobs." The report adds that the current total US allotment of economic-based green cards would not even be sufficient to grant permanent residency to every graduate student or postdoctoral researcher in the science, engineering, and healthcare fields in the U.S. on a temporary visa – a group that numbered close to 190,000 in 2009. "Each year, more than half the employment-based green cars are actually used to bring in the spouses and children of workers, leaving fewer than 70,000 green cards for the actual workers educated in the U.S. in addition to the thousands of highly-skilled workers educated and trained overseas brought in by American employers."

Accessing the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s public online database, the study reviewed 1,466 patents from the top ten patent-producing universities in 2011: the University of California system, Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Wisconsin, the University of Texas system, California Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois system, University of Michigan, Cornell University and Georgia Institute of Technology.

The review of patents from these leading research universities not only found that 76% of the patents granted had a foreign-born inventor, but 54% of the patents were awarded to the group of foreign inventors most likely to face visa hurdles: students, postdoctoral fellows, or staff researchers.

The report also states that foreign-born inventors played significant roles in the fields of semiconductor device manufacturing (87%), information technology (84%), pulse or digital communications (83%), pharmaceutical drugs or drug compounds (79%) and optics (77%). The nearly 1,500 patents represented inventors from 88 different countries.

Patents are both bellwethers and enablers of innovation, the report argues, citing Nobel-Prize winning economist Robert Solow's pronouncement that as much as half of a country’s economic growth was attributable not to capital or labor, but to actual “technical change.” This is a message not lost on nations such as China and Chile, who are "actively trying to bolster their economies by convincing talented entrepreneurs and innovators to move there."

Some examples of innovations from immigrants include the following, as cited in the report:

  • Patent #8,084,889, Electricity Without Wires: "A Croatian professor and a Greek engineering graduate student at MIT invented a way to transmit electricity wirelessly between magnetic coils so that devices like cell phones, electric cars, and even medical defibrillators can be charged without using a wall socket. A startup commercializing the technology has already entered into partnerships with Toyota, Audi, and a medical device company to explore incorporating it into products."
  • Patent #8,029,857, A More Efficient Way To Purify Seawater: "An Indian-born postdoctoral fellow at the University of California—Los Angeles was part of a team that invented a water filtration membrane that used nanotechnology to desalinate water more efficiently than had ever been done before. A startup has already raised $75 million to commercialize their invention, which could help reduce worldwide water shortages.
  • Patent #7,936,392, A New Way to Focus Pictures: "A Malaysian-born PhD graduate of Stanford University was one of the key inventors behind The Lytro camera, a digital camera he brought to market in February that lets the user adjust what’s in focus after the picture has already been taken."

(Photo: National Science Foundation.)

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure